Krishnamurti on Attention and Inattention
‘Is there a sustained attention? Of course not. So, it is important to understand why there is inattention.’
This week’s episode on Attention and Inattention has five sections.
The first extract (2:41) is from the first question and answer meeting in Bombay 1985, titled ‘Why aren’t we capable of sustaining attention?’
The second extract (13:53) is from Krishnamurti’s first talk at Rajghat in 1967, titled ‘What takes place when you give complete attention?’
The third extract (27:08) is from the fourth talk in Bombay 1979, titled ‘Awareness of inattention is attention’.
The fourth extract (35:34) is from Krishnamurti’s fourth talk in New Delhi 1966, titled ‘Extraordinary attention’.
The final extract in this episode (41:59) is from a direct recording by Krishnamurti in Ojai 1983, titled ‘Awareness, attention and insight’. This is an exclusive to the podcast and has not been heard before outside of the archives.
Why Aren’t We Capable of Sustaining Attention?
First of all, why do you want to sustain something all the time? You want to sustain pleasure all the time. You want gratification. You want certain conclusions to be continuous. You want certain relationships to be lasting, sustained, nourished. Why this desire to have continuity? Do you understand my question?
You want to sustain attention – why? Because somebody has told you attention is very important? Or you have discovered for yourself the nature of attention? Therefore you have to inquire what is inattention. What is important is not attention but what is inattention, not attending. We have divided the two – not having complete attention and also lacking that, which is inattention, not attending. Now, which is important? Important in the sense, on which should we look? Is not inattention more important than attention? Would you agree? Because if I understand what is inattention, then there is attention. So what is not-attending?
We are talking over together now. Are you attending all the time or only part of the time? Please, just look at it, answer, look at it for yourself, go into it for yourself. Are you really paying attention to what is being said now, or only for a few seconds or a few minutes and then go off to something else? Is there a sustained attention? Of course not. So, it is important to understand why there is inattention.
Is there such a thing as inattention? Are you interested in all this? Inattention is distraction. That is what you call distraction. Is there a distraction at all? I want to think about something, and then that very thought goes off to something else. The ‘going off’ I call distraction. Is not thought itself a distraction? I wonder if you see that. I want to concentrate on this subject, and I can do that only for a few minutes and then thought goes off to something else. The thinking about something else, instead of what I am supposed to be thinking about, is called distraction. If I don’t call it distraction but follow it – you understand?
I am concentrating on reading a chapter of a book, and I watch. I see that thought is going off to something else. Then I say that is a distraction. But I won’t call it a distraction – to me that doesn’t exist at all, personally. To me, there is no distraction because I follow what you call distraction. I don’t say, ‘I must read this chapter or these few lines,’ but whatever direction thought moves, watch it, so that there is no sense of distraction, which means no division. So there is a watching, attention and non-attention. Then non-attention is attention. I wonder if you see that.
See how we are distracted by words. The word ‘distraction’ is a very destructive process because you want to concentrate on something and therefore the other, moving away from that, is called distraction. Thought is always moving, it is never static. It is always in action – whether you are asleep, whether you are waking or daydreaming or doing something or other, it is in action, in movement. And thought is a material process. I wonder if you have understood this. Thought is based on memory, experience and knowledge, and that is stored in the brain. The brain contains millions and millions of cells, and those cells hold memories. This is scientific fact. And this is always in movement. So one begins to discover that the brain has its own rhythm, not the rhythm of thought. I wonder if you follow. I won’t go into all that.
Now we are asking: is it possible to watch? To watch, to be absolutely watching all the time. That is really another form of asking: can I sustain attention? Is attention brought about through effort? And if you make an effort, is that attention? That is, to practice attention. Lovely idea! Practice day after day, watching your body, the movements – you follow? – the game you play. At the end, you say, ‘Yes, I’ve learnt attention.’ Is attention a form of acquiring memory about attention? Is attention gathered through practice, through various forms of psychological training? Or there is attention only, not inattention. If you understand inattention, there is attention, and it is never sustained. Why should you attend all the time?
Then you can look at the stars. And that also requires attention.
So, there is no distraction.
Krishnamurti in Bombay 1985, Question and Answer Meeting 1
What Takes Place When You Give Complete Attention?
Look at a tree. Please, this is very important. You may have heard the speaker say this often, but to really look at a tree is one of the most difficult things to do. You can look at a tree because it is objective, away from the centre, over there. When you look at that tree, how do you look at it? Do you look at it with your mind or do you look at it with your eyes? Or do you look at it with your eyes plus your mind? If you look at a tree, you see it not only visually, with your eyes, but your looking also evokes certain memories, certain associations. I look at that tree and say, ‘That is a Tamarind.’ When I say it is a Tamarind, or a Mimosa or whatever it is, I have already stopped looking. Do observe it in yourselves. My mind is already distracted by saying, ‘That is a Tamarind.’ Whereas to look at a tree I must give complete attention to the looking. So, to look is only possible when thought in no way interferes with the looking. Thought is memory, experience and knowledge, and when all that comes in, it is interfering with looking, with attention.
Now, it is fairly easy to look at a tree, because it is something outside. But to look at oneself, to see actually what one is, to look at violence without any condemnation, justification or explanation, just to look at it – to do that you must have plenty of energy, mustn’t you?
Now, observe what is happening here. The speaker is saying something to you, and to listen you have to give your whole attention. To find out exactly what he is saying, you must give attention. But if you are taking notes, if you are looking at somebody else, if you are tired, if you are sleepy, if you are yawning or scratching – or agreeing or disagreeing – then you are not giving complete attention. So, to listen to the word, to the train that is going over that bridge, to listen to the movement of the wind in the leaves, not casually but to listen to it, you must have tremendous energy. That can only come into being when there is no explanation – when thought doesn’t say, ‘That tree is pleasant,’ or, ‘The noise of that train is interfering with my listening,’ and so on.
So, can I, and can you, look at this violence? – whose cause we have explained somewhat. Can we look at this violence without any justification? Without condemning it, can we look at it as it is?
What takes place when you give complete attention to the thing we call violence? – violence being not only what separates human beings, through belief, conditioning and so on, but also what comes into being when we are seeking personal security, or the security of individuality through a pattern of society. Can you look at that violence with complete attention? And when you look at that violence with complete attention, what takes place? When you give complete attention to anything – your learning of history or mathematics, looking at your wife or husband – what takes place? I do not know if you have gone into it – probably most of us have never given complete attention to anything – but when you do, what takes place?
What is attention? Surely when you are giving complete attention there is care, and you cannot care if you have no affection, no love. And when you give attention, in which there is love, is there violence?
Formally I have condemned violence, I have escaped from it, I have justified it, I have said it is natural. All these things are inattention. But when I give attention to what I have called violence – and in that attention there is care, affection, love – where is there space for violence? So it is important when we are going into this question of violence, to understand, very deeply, what is attention.
Attention is not concentration. Concentration is a most stupid way of dealing with anything. When a schoolboy wants to – rather, is forced to – concentrate on a book when he wants to look out of the window, what takes place? He wants to look out of the window, and the teacher says, ‘Look at your book, concentrate’ – what takes place? There is a conflict, isn’t there? He wants to look at the beauty of a tree, or just to look at it casually, or to see who is going by, or to watch a bird preening itself, and at the same time he feels he must look at the book. So what takes place? There is a conflict, isn’t there? He wants to look over there, and at the same time he wants to look at the book. In that conflict he is neither looking at the book nor looking at the tree or the bird. Whereas, if he were really attentive, he would be attentive to both, to everything – to the colours, to the people sitting next to him, to what they are doing, to how they are scratching their heads, or taking notes, or not paying attention – he would be aware of everything.
So violence is not to be fought against, is not to be suppressed, not to be transcended, transmuted, gone above and beyond. Violence is to be looked at. When you look at something with care, with attention, you begin to understand it, and therefore there is no place for violence at all. It is only the inattentive, the thoughtless, the prejudiced, who are violent. So the stupid man is violent, not the man who is attentive, who looks, cares, has love; for this man there is no place for violence, either in gesture, or in word, or in action.
Krishnamurti at Rajghat in 1967, Talk 1
Awareness of Inattention Is Attention
We all need a quiet mind, a peaceful mind, an absolutely silent mind without a murmur of thought. Is that possible? ‘Possible’ means we don’t know. If we know already, that knowledge is the remembrance of something of the past, therefore it is not a quiet mind. So we are saying, is it possible to have a mind that is absolutely without a ripple? We are going to find out. To discover if it is possible, first you must understand the nature of attention.
What is the nature of attention, to attend? And what is the nature of inattention, not attending? And what is the nature of concentration? And what is the nature of distraction? You are following all this? What does one mean by concentration? That is what most people try to do: concentrate. You are taught from childhood to concentrate. In school, you are told, ‘Look at your book, don’t look out of the window.’
What do we mean by concentration, and who is it that is concentrating? Thought has projected an image or an idea, a concept or a picture, and on that you concentrate – that means exclude all other thoughts. But the exclusion becomes impossible because thought itself is divisive.
I wonder if you understand this – no, you don’t.
So there is no distraction. Thought says, ‘Concentrate on that, and any movement away from that is distraction.’ But the movement away from it is the movement of thought. Thought says, ‘Concentrate,’ and thought also moves away from it. The moving away from it is distraction. But thought itself is a distraction because it has moved away.
You are following all this? Please don’t laugh. Look at it. This is very, very serious if you want to go into meditation. So there is no distraction because thought itself is a distraction the moment it says, ‘I must concentrate.’
And what is attention? And what is not being able to attend? You have been here for over an hour; you are tired at the end of the day; you have listened to a lot of words, and if you have gone into yourself, you become rather tired. And you cannot, when you are tired, attend.
I am purposely going slowly so that you can gradually gather your energy, so that we are able to investigate together.
So we are asking: what is attention and what is inattention? Attention means to attend, to give all your energy to look, to attend, to hear, to absorb, to see. You can only do that for a couple of seconds probably, or a minute, and that attention goes down, and there is inattention. You are not completely attentive. Attention demands that you give all your energy, with all your senses, with all your mind and heart, completely attentive. But that intense, active attention cannot be sustained by most people, so inattention comes. But when you are aware of that inattention, that you are not attending, that very perception that you are not attending is attention.
Have you got it? What is important is that there is no conflict in the mind. Never say, ‘I was attentive, I know what it means, I want to capture it again.’ The whole movement is, if you are aware of it, attention.
Krishnamurti in Bombay 1979, Talk 4
The questioner asks: who is the observer when there is no observer and the observed? The speaker said that when there is total complete attention, there is neither the observer nor the observed. So one must understand what one means by that word ‘attention’.
There is no attention when there is any kind of endeavour or effort. If I am making an effort to attend, my energy is gone in making the effort. So the first thing I have to realise is what it means to attend. There is no attention if there is any form of trying to shape the attention, trying to limit it, trying to enforce it in a particular direction. There is no attention if there is thought functioning according to inclination, pleasure, desire or temperament, or is compelled by circumstances. Which is, if there is any form of image, there is no attention.
All this means meditation, not the meditation that some of you may practise, which is the repetition of Ram, Ram, Sita, or whatever the name is. Such repetition of words makes the mind dull. And the mind which is made dull can be very silent, but it is still a dull mind.
So there is attention when there is no image, when there is no time. Time is a process of thinking within the field of consciousness. All consciousness is the result of time and thought. In that boundary of consciousness, attention is not possible. Coming to this attention is the easiest thing because attention comes when there is an awareness of every action, feeling, thought that you have. That is, attention comes into being when there is self-knowing – not according to some philosophy or some psychologist and so on, but actually knowing yourself as you are, your thoughts, your gestures, the way you talk to your wife or husband, to your boss – just to be aware of your reaction, not to condemn it, not to justify it, not to translate it into something, but just to observe, to be aware choicelessly. From that comes this extraordinary attention in which there is neither image, nor time, nor thought. And in that state of attention, which is meditation, there is neither the observer nor the observed.
Try it, do it. Don’t ask me who is the observer when there is no observer or the observed – do it.
Krishnamurti: Wait, sir, just a minute. You know, it is good to ask questions, but you must ask the right question. But the right question implies a very high quality of mind, a mind that is really serious, really earnest, wanting to find out – not a mind that just asks a flippant question and does not even pay attention to the answer.
Q: I wanted to ask…
K: Sir, that gentleman asked a question: when there is no observer, does the observed exist? That is the first thing. When there is no observer, does that thing observed exist? Of course it exists. It exists as it is, not as you would like it to exist.
Observe a tree. Observe it. If you have no symbol about that tree – the symbol being the image, the botanical knowledge, the species and so on – but merely look at that tree, you give your whole attention to that looking. And to look with attention means to look with your nerves, your body, your ears, your eyes, your heart, everything that you have, and therefore it means energy. And that energy is dissipated when you have an image about the object.
Then, if you do this, you will find out for yourself that a mind which is so completely attentive is an empty mind. And from that emptiness and silence, there is action even with regard to the most ordinary thing.
Krishnamurti in New Delhi 1966, Talk 3
Awareness, Attention and Insight
At the end of every leaf, the large leaves and the tiny leaves, there was a drop of water sparkling in the sun like an extraordinary jewel. And there was a slight breeze, but that breeze didn’t in any way disturb or destroy that drop on those leaves that were washed clean by the late rain.
It was a very quiet morning, full of delight, peaceful, with a sense of benediction in the air. And as we watched the sparkling light on every clean leaf, the earth became extraordinarily beautiful, in spite of all the telegraph wires and their ugly posts. In spite of all the noise of the world, the earth was rich, abiding, enduring. Though there were earthquakes here and there, most destructive, the earth was still beautiful.
One never appreciates the earth unless one really lives with it, works with it, puts one’s hands in the dust, lifting big rocks and stones – one never knows the extraordinary sense of being with the earth, the flowers, the gigantic trees and the strong grass and the hedges along the road.
Everything was alive that morning. As we watched, there was a sense of great joy. The heavens were blue; the sun was slowly coming out of the hills and there was light. As we watched the mockingbird on the wire, it was doing its antics, jumping high, doing a somersault then coming down on the same spot on the wire. As we watched the bird enjoying itself, jumping in the air and coming down circling, with its shrill cries and its enjoyment of life, only that bird existed – the watcher didn’t exist. The watcher was no longer there, only the bird, grey and white, with a longish tail. That watching was without any movement of thought, watching the flurry of the bird that was enjoying itself.
We never watch for long. When we watch with great patience, watch without any sense of the watcher, watch those birds, those droplets on the quivering leaves, the bees and the flowers and the long trail of ants, time ceases, time has a stop. One doesn’t take time to watch or have the patience to watch. One learns a great deal through watching – watching people, the way they walk, their talk, their gestures. You can see through their vanity or their negligence of their own bodies. They are indifferent, they are callous.
There was an eagle flying high in the air, circling without a beat of its wings, carried away by the air current beyond the hills, and was lost.
Watching, learning: learning is time but watching has no time. Or when you listen, listen without any interpretation, without any reaction. Listen without any bias. Listen to that thunder in the skies, the thunder rolling among the hills. One never listens completely; there is always interruption. Watching and listening are a great art – watching and listening without any reaction, without any sense of the listener or the see-er. By watching and listening, we learn infinitely more than from any book. Books are necessary, but watching and listening sharpen your senses. For, after all, the brain is the centre of all the reactions, thoughts and remembrances. But if your senses are not highly awakened, you cannot really watch and listen and learn, not only how to act but about learning, which is the very soil in which the seed of goodness can grow.
When there is this simple, clear watching and listening, then there is an awareness – awareness of the colour of those flowers, red, yellow, white; of the spring leaves, the stems so tender, so delicate; awareness of the heavens, the earth and those people who are passing by. They have been chattering along that long road, never looking at the trees, at the flowers, at the skies and the marvellous hills. They are not even aware of what is going on around them. They talk a great deal about the environment, how we must protect nature and so on, but it seems they are not aware of the beauty and the silence of the hills and the dignity of a marvellous old tree. They are not even aware of their own thoughts, their own reactions, nor are they aware of the way they walk, of their clothes.
It does not mean that they are to be self-centred in their watching, in their awareness, but just be aware. When you are aware, there is a choice of what to do, what not to do, like and dislike, your biases, your fears, your anxieties, the joys which you have remembered, the pleasures that you have pursued; in all this there is choice, and we think that choice gives us freedom. We like that freedom to choose; we think freedom is necessary to choose. Or, rather, that choice gives us a sense of freedom. But there is no choice when you see things very, very clearly. And that leads us to an awareness without choice, to be aware without any like or dislike.
When there is this really simple, honest, choiceless awareness, it leads to another factor, which is attention. The word itself means to stretch out, to grasp, to hold on, but that is still the activity of the brain. It is in the brain. Watching, awareness and attention are within the area of the brain, and the brain is limited, conditioned by all the ways of past generations, the impressions, the traditions, and all the folly and the goodness of man. So all action from this attention is still limited, and that which is limited must inevitably bring disorder.
When one is thinking about oneself from morning until night – one’s own worries, one’s own desires, demands and fulfilments – this self-centredness, being very, very limited, must cause friction in its relationship with another, who is also limited; there must be friction, there must be strain and disturbances of many kinds – the perpetual violence of human beings. When one is attentive to all this, choicelessly aware, then out of that comes insight.
Insight is not an act of remembrance, the continuation of memory. Insight is like a flash of light. You see with absolute clarity all the complications, the consequences, the intricacies. Then this very insight is action, complete. In that, there are no regrets, no looking back, no sense of being weighed down, no discrimination. This is pure, clear insight – perception without any shadow of doubt.
Most of us begin with certainty and, as we grow older, the certainty changes to uncertainty, and we die with uncertainty. But if one begins with uncertainty, doubting, questioning, asking, demanding, with real doubt about man’s behaviour, about all the religious rituals and their images and their symbols, then out of that doubt comes the clarity of certainty.
When there is clear insight into violence, for instance, that very insight banishes all violence. That insight is outside the brain, if one can so put it. It is not of time. It is not of remembrance or of knowledge. And so that insight and its action changes the very brain cells. That insight is complete, and from that completeness there can be logical, sane, rational, action. This whole movement, from watching, listening, to the thunder of insight, is one movement; it is not coming to it step by step. It is like a swift arrow. And that insight alone can uncondition the brain, not the effort of thought, which is determination or seeing the necessity for something; none of that will bring about total freedom from conditioning. All this is time and the ending of time. Man is time-bound and that bondage to time is the movement of thought.
So where there is an ending to thought and to time, there is total insight. Only then can there be the flowering of the brain. Only then can you have a complete relationship with the mind.
Krishnamurti in Ojai 1983, Direct Recording